When Is It Time to Quit on a Story, Character, or Book?

Every writer of books is plagued by stories of how some author submitted a novel to 30 or 40 or 57 agents or publishers before finding it a home, only to go on to experience huge, decades-spanning success. It makes us wonder if we should be submit that story or novel to just one more place, because this next place could be the one that says yes. While I can’t give you any hard and fast rules about this –there is no equation — I do think there comes a time when we need to abandon old projects for new ideas. Here are my general parameters.

You’ve Been Trying for More Than 5 Years

I have this one story that I’ve been going back to, revising, tweaking, and editing for more than ten years. I’ve submitted it to dozens of magazines and it has been universally rejected. I’ll be honest. It breaks my heart a little that I never found a home for that story. I think it’s probably, on balance, one of the most powerful and well-written things I’ve ever done. But, after ten years and so many revisions I cannot count them anymore, I’m retiring that story from active submitting. It will, however, probably see life in some other context.

You’re Bored

Granted, every writer gets bored at some point during the writing process. It happens. That’s not what I mean. What I’m talking about is that moment where you realize that you’re phoning it in because you just don’t care about the story or characters anymore. When you stop caring, it’s time to let that idea go, because reader boredom won’t be far behind.

People Who Know Are Telling You It’s Bad

It’s a hard thing to hear that an idea is bad or a story doesn’t work or a novel isn’t compelling. The only thing worse than that is to push forward with it anyways. If one person tells you it’s bad, you can probably blow it off. If your writer’s group, your friends, an agent and an editor all say it’s bad, put that one in your drawer and forget about it. The odds that all of those people are wrong are infinitesimally low.

There may be other times when you should quit, like if it’s impacting your health, but the above three three are the times that I believe you should always quit and move onto a new idea. Sometimes, no amount of effort or revision can save an idea and absolutely nothing can save a book from the author’s boredom.

Do you have any personal guidelines for when to abandon an idea, book or character? Let me know about them in the comments below.

So, have you written anything I might have read?

Image courtesy of graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I expect that everyone with the raw nerve to proclaim themselves as writers have faced this question. On the one hand, it’s inevitable. On the other hand, it’s frustrating. If you take the question at face value, the answer should be: “How the hell should I know?” Asking a comparative stranger to judge, based on a few minutes of interaction, whether you might have read what they’ve written is, of course, absurd (unless the writer is Sherlock Holmes).

Sadly, though, what they are really asking is something more pernicious and, frankly, harder to swallow. The question they mean to ask is, “Have you written something that is famous enough that I might have heard of it?” The answer to that question is, in almost all instances, for almost all writers, “No.”

There are maybe a few dozen writers who have name recognition in popular culture, although sometimes their books or characters are famous when they are not. The rest of us chip away in relative obscurity. The problem with uttering that magical phrase, “I’m a writer,” is that it doesn’t actually communicate what most of us do.

After all, the person writing dialogue for your favorite TV show is a writer. The people crafting the slogans in the commercials that interrupt your favorite TV show are writers. So are the people writing the novels you read, the textbooks you study, the blogs you read instead of working, and articles in your favorite topical magazine or e-zine, depending on your tech- savvy.

This is, no doubt, why so some writers do not self-identify as writers, but as the kind of writing they do. They say, “I’m a novelist,” or, “I’m a blogger,” or, “I’m a journalist,” or, “I’m a copywriter.” Which is all well and good, if that’s all you do. But what about those people who are, at turns, novelists and bloggers and freelance article writers for magazines. By what name should they identify themselves? With no better options, they call themselves writers.

Since we have no better option than to call ourselves writers, I suggest that what we need is a better answer to the question, “Have you written anything I might have read?” Rather than hem and haw and, eventually, admit that the answer is probably not, we should say the following. “I’m not sure, but if you haven’t, you should.” Then, give them the name of your latest novel or offer to send them a link to something you’ve written.

Of course, the odds are good that, even if they agree to let you send them a link or write down the name of your latest book, they won’t read your work. But, a few of them probably will. If they like it, they’ll probably tell their friends and that is how you get some word of mouth moving. Since the thing that most writers lack is an audience and we can’t depend on other people to give us one, we have to take matters into our own hands. This is one way to do that.